By Debbie Cannon
There’s a huge sense of fun and youthful energy about this adaptation of Twelfth Night from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, playing at Paradise in Augustine’s. As soon as we enter the auditorium, we’re greeted warmly by the young cast moving around the space, sitting down comfortably beside us to involve us in their jokes and games, or just enter into a friendly chat. And throughout the hour that follows, the audience remains in the role of a valued playmate, as we’re treated to a reminder of just how lively and entertaining Shakespeare can be.
This show has already toured extensively around schools in the Bristol area, and it shows in the slickness of the production and its clear concern to make the play both comprehensible and appealing to a young audience. The cast have a job on their hands – our audience ranged in age from 4 to 5 year olds to the very grown-up indeed, with a liberal sprinkling of 11 to 12 year olds, many of whom looked initially as though they were there primarily because their parents thought it might be good for them. This adaptation, cut to a fast-moving one hour, employs a whole raft of techniques to win its audience over to Shakespeare. The most obvious effort is made with the language: the bulk of the script is Shakespeare’s text, but it’s interspersed with modern speech and cultural references which are often used to explain, or comment on the Shakespearean lines which have gone before. Feste (Josephine Rattigan) takes on a special role here, participating in the action of the play, but also stepping out of it to keep the audience up to speed on the latest developments in the tangled love-plots. ‘She’s only known him three minutes!’ she comments to the audience after Olivia (Stephanie Glide) falls for Viola/Cesario (Phoebe Vigor). Other cast members, particularly Martin Bassindale who is marvellous in the dual role of Orsino and Malvolio, also shift out of character at times to offer a conspiratorial nudge to the audience about the absurdities of the plot and the difficulties of playing in it. There’s a (quite literally) running joke about his speedy costume changes. Lots of physical comedy, larger than life characterisation, live music, and visual gags involving fruit are also employed to carry the audience along on the cast’s wave of enthusiasm. Via the media of bear-decapitation, ukuleles, Hawaiian shirts and nipple-twisting, the company work tirelessly to engage. And they succeed: by the end of the hour, everyone in our audience was laughing and ready to enter into the heartiest round of applause I’ve heard yet this Fringe.
The cast of six (Billy Howle and Gareth Tempest complete the sextet) are really fantastic, telling their story with style, panache and confidence. All are second year acting students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, but there’s no suggestion of inexperience, here. The characters they create are exaggerated, but well-judged, and beautifully depicted through physicality, action and voice. Their comic timing is a joy to behold, and the physical comedy used throughout was especially popular with the children in the audience. They keep the plot moving at a relentless pace, so much so that by the end of the show most of them were dripping with sweat, but they make it look effortless.
They have a fairly bare set to work with: a screen depicting Illyria in seaside postcard scenes provides a ‘backstage’ behind which to wait and/or change costume. Their range of props remain on stage throughout. They never seem restricted, however, filling the space on stage with continuous action.
Shakespeare enthusiasts may find this version of the play rather too obviously reduced to meet the demands of schools. In the effort to explain the plot to a young audience, key themes and character types feel at times to be offered up with the theatrical equivalent of a highlighter pen, ready for discussion in class. The baiting of Malvolio is also an especially interesting moment for this adaptation. Admirably, the production neither shies away from the cruelty of this, nor attempts to tidy it neatly away. It does however, seem to create a kind of uncertainty in how to end the play. The company plays with this to an extent, offering a couple of ‘false’ endings, but the musical number with which they finish seems a little abrupt.
This is an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for youngsters – even the ones who began the show with a bemused expression were laughing along by the end. ‘Good show’ said my nine year old as we left. For those who are already converts to Shakespeare it’s simply a pleasure to watch such a talented cast enjoying themselves in the expert telling of this story. And despite the show’s origin as a play for schools, it works equally well for any age-group. It’s not always easy to find Shakespeare being performed well: all the more reason not to miss this excellent show and rather wonderful company.